The West Side Story – Keypad Sept-issue

Translated by Roy Wong (Keypad)

Click here to Keypad to see the original (P.72)  |   中文版

_issue cover

Imagine an elevated railroad, towering over busy streets, intertwining through buildings and extending out through the cityscape. It connects one side of the city to another, only to find that no trains run through it except wild grass, shrubs and the occasional tree or two. Through years of public and government debate on whether it should be dismantled or retained, it has now become New York’s proud hanging gardens.



Story starts in New York, Manhattan, in the early 20th century. 1.6km of elevated railroad was built to transport goods from the warehouses to the city without disturbing the busy streets. It was used all the way up until 1980 where it was disconnected from the rest of the train line. It had become an useless bridge through the city only to grow wild grass and shrubs on. Development ideas to areas where the rail line stands and around the rail line had also been halted since 1980, as government and developers want the rail line dismantled there were people like Robert Hammond and Joshua David who opposed it.



Joshua David and Robert Hammond are founders of ‘Friends of the High Line’. They are a non-profit organization that try to preserve and transform heritage parts of New York in practical ways to be shared among the community and visitors. Instead of protesting against the angry horde of people who wanted the railway line gone, Friends of the High Line slowly conveyed their vision across the community and influenced the people to see the importance of their heritage protection project ‘High Line’. Their vision was to retain the old railroad with communal areas where people could interact and enjoy the atmosphere whilst boosting capital growth for surrounding areas from the newfound attention to the area.


After three years of hard work of promoting their idea, it was a success. By the end of the third year, the mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, who wanted the bridge dismantled, finished his term. The new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was more open minded about this project and allowed this idea to be realised.


During the planning stages, the public was given a say on what was to be put onto the bridge. Friends of High Line invited the public through the construction site and held public forums to discuss matters regarding the project.


The design incorporated elements of the new and retainment of the old, to show the changes of New York and the train line itself over the years. This could be seen by the plants and grass planted around original train tracks and sleepers, creating a park on top of the 10 metre high bridge reminding us the days it was left abandoned. There are also interactive elements like seating, playground for the kids and an amphitheatre that looks out into the the busy streets of New York as its stage.


The result of all this was brilliant and had become a big tourist attraction since it opened in 2009, averaging 20,000 people on weekends or on public holidays. It has also brought people to its surrounding areas and has made the place busier and more lively. Surrounding old warehouses has become galleries, hotels and high end restaurants. High Line park has brought in an extra 900 million dollars tax for the government, from a staggering 250 million as it was originally forecasted before its construction.


If High Line was dismantled, the area would have been built over with a monotonous residential area. But now it has become a hotspot and a renowned form of architecture which has attracted many renowned Architects such as Zaha Hadid, Neil Denari to design in surrounding areas. High Line’s success in resurrecting the old can be seen that one does not need to demolish the old to give place to the new, but it is how one retain, refurbish and maintain the old to keep it anew.


It allows us to see our society within the city grow and develop over time, how we got from one place to another. It is finding a good balance between those who wants to protect their heritage to those who want to develop for the new are we able to achieve this. It is also a rare sight to see unity between the public, developers and the government. The public showing such commitment and effort in creating ideas, at the same time Friends of High Line giving such responsibility to the public, whilst the government assisting from the sidelines. It benefits the public most when the public are able to get involved with projects and the results are far better. This success has become a new model for urban renewal projects.



If this project took place in Hong Kong, it would almost be impossible to influence the community enough to keep unused railroad. Even if the public was convinced, the government would still go ahead with dismantling it. Even if it was passed through by the government, the project would become a commercialized piece of real estate with shopping complexes to be rented out or sold. Even if the top of the bridge was to be a public open space, it would be managed by developer, and the ‘Highline Park’ would probably be locked by barred gates for ‘security reasons’. The side facing the water would be partitioned to fit 30-40 apartment blocks. This would be as much heritage protection as it would get. The financial secretary of Hong Kong, John Tsang, reckons High Line is an amazing project and mentions that ‘the project was a very creative way to keep the past without spending too much money and was able to benefit the community at the same time.’ Creativity alone is not enough; it requires the aid and effort of the community and a good government who would listen to its people to achieve success.


architecture photography: Highline elevated park at the blue hour, chelsea neighborhood, manhattan, New York City, NYC